Stockard on the Stump: Moderation becoming extinct in Tennessee politics
Alabama redistricting case could give hope to Tennessee plaintiffs
Participants in prayer ceremony encircle the Tennessee Capitol prior to the start of a special legislative session on Monday, Aug. 21, 2023. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Young Democrats in the state House are riding a wave of Republican blunders that could reshape the state’s political landscape, eventually leaving moderates without a home.
Republicans forced middle-of-the-roaders out last year when they defeated GOP Rep. Bob Ramsey of Maryville and redrew the district of independent Rep. John Mark Windle, who had already dropped out of the Democratic Caucus because he was considered too conservative.
First-term Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, fresh off national acclaim for being expelled then reinstated and re-elected, vaulted into the limelight again in the recent special session when House Republican leadership spent their strategy trying to silence them.
The rules Republicans adopted on the session’s first day were designed to muffle the duo after the House expelled them in April for leading an anti-gun rally on the floor after The Covenant School mass shooting.
But that backfired.
Instead of letting them drone on for five minutes about every bill, Republican leadership gave them a bigger platform than they could have hoped for, just to avoid more confrontation.
House leadership came off looking power hungry and paranoid, even as they tried to deflect the blame, labeling the Democratic duo as attention seekers.
Simultaneously, Republicans such as Rep. Chris Todd of Jackson looked callous and cold, pushing the theory that the Covenant shooter would have used a car to run over children if not an AR-15. While Todd sells his theory that gun rights trump everything, the families of the three 9-year-olds and three adults killed that day will suffer quietly until their days end.
Predictably, Jones, D-Nashville, tested the new rules and drew censure for going off-topic more than twice, sparking a Democratic walk-out that allowed Republicans to expedite a spate of bills that had no chance of passing, since the Senate refused to play ball. The argument centered on whether Republican Rep. Gino Bulso of Brentwood had committed the same offenses but escaped punishment.
The rules, though, didn’t stop Jones from being able to assert, once again, that his 70,000 constituents had been silenced.
Nor did the effort to quell public dissent and shut down Democratic activist lawmakers avert a physical confrontation between Pearson and House Speaker Cameron Sexton, an incident some former lawmakers are calling an embarrassment for the Crossville Republican.
As Pearson and Jones remained in the limelight, East Nashvillian Aftyn Behn ran under the radar, preferring to monitor her laptop computer instead of raising hell in the House chamber.
Behn, a Democrat and progressive activist who would like to become the fourth wheel of the “Tennessee Three,” is the likely winner in the House 51st District race after defeating interim Rep. Anthony Davis in the primary. She faces Republican David Hooven and independent Annabelle Lee in the Sept. 14 general election.
Davis ran on a liberal voting record amassed during his time on the Metro Council, but East Nashville apparently wants someone more confrontational. Behn takes pride in being booted from the House balcony at the direction of former Speaker Glen Casada in 2019, and she’ll have plenty of time to catch Sexton’s ire in 2024.
She received moderate contributions from Rep. Gloria Johnson and Sen. Charlane Oliver during her primary campaign while Davis had the backing of several men in the House Democratic Caucus.
Oddly enough, while Jones and Pearson might have new pull in Davidson and Shelby counties amid their recently-acquired fame, they aren’t exactly handing out money, despite bringing in hefty donations last spring. It’s a departure from Republicans’ playbook of moving money from one candidate to another.
Pearson, for instance, endorsed former Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner this week in the Memphis mayoral race, instead of House Minority Leader Karen Camper.
Rep. Vincent Dixie says he doesn’t see a “concerted effort” to elect younger, activist Democrats.
Yet, he adds, “It’s good. You need a mixture. That new blood brings that new energy, brings new thoughts. I welcome it.”
Dixie points out Behn was a “beneficiary” of the Jones-Pearson wave while Davis, in spite of liberal leanings, might have been hamstrung by years on the Metro Council.
Veteran Davidson County representatives, who haven’t been able to make much headway in the Republican-controlled House, are trying to figure out where their voice fits.
Rep. Jason Powell grew vocal in the recent session and sent a letter to the governor’s office asking where committee chairs get the authority to have state troopers remove people from meetings. (He hasn’t received an answer.)
Three Covenant parents were taken out of one committee meeting for holding small signs. They immediately sued, and a Davidson County chancellor said a rule against signs was unconstitutional.
(Gov.) Lee wasn’t around. The Senate, I heard they’re all jockeying to be the next lieutenant governor. The House … it was like there was no game plan whatsoever. They’re running legislation that’s hurtful to The Covenant families and general Tennesseans.
– Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville
Powell, a Nashville Democrat, isn’t expecting to face a primary next year but notes he doesn’t “own” the seat. “It belongs to the people,” he says.
One of the more moderate Democrats in the House, Powell is still shocked that Republicans tried to circumvent House floor debate with new rules.
“And then (Gov.) Lee wasn’t around. The Senate, I heard they’re all jockeying to be the next lieutenant governor. The House … it was like there was no game plan whatsoever. They’re running legislation that’s hurtful to The Covenant families and general Tennesseans,” he says.
The governor’s extraordinary session turned out to be an exercise in futility.
Senators adjourned after doing the minimum amount of work. But the House ended with its usual ruckus and claims of assault.
The commotion is starting to wear on some Republicans who are weary of the chamber’s constant turmoil. Some are likely to step away in 2024, but Rep. Pat Marsh isn’t among them. The Shelbyville Republican says he has too much work to do, between building a college of applied technology and wrapping an agreement between MTSU and Shelbyville for airport use.
“We can’t let those distractions get to us. We’ve just got to fight through it,” Marsh says.
Yet some lawmakers lament a chaotic creep, and some leaders could be drawing blame for letting the environment turn into a cacophony of jeers and tears.
Even with troopers sent in to control the movement of every person in the Cordell Hull Building and Capitol, which was expensive and unnecessary, the session blew up in Republicans’ faces.
Anecdotally, folks on the street are questioning Sexton’s strategies. So while he tries to explain away his bump into Pearson and shift the blame to the Memphis Democrat, people aren’t buying it.
The result in two to three election cycles could be more activists, more far-right nuts and no room in between for moderation. Where have you gone Howard Baker?
Plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s redistricting map are hoping for a little bounce from a court order on Alabama gerrymandering.
A three-judge panel this week ordered an outside party to draw new congressional districts after finding Alabama’s Legislature refused to follow a January 2022 ruling that found the state’s redistricting map diluted the Black vote to the point it killed the chance of electing a minority representative.
“The law requires the creation of an additional district that affords Black Alabamians, like everyone else, a fair and reasonable opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. The 2023 Plan plainly fails to do so,” judges wrote in their recent finding, according to a report by the Alabama Reflector, which is part of the States Newsroom network.
The Alabama case isn’t analogous to Tennessee’s because the demographics are different. It has a higher concentration of Black residents than Davidson County in Tennessee and an obvious majority minority district.
Nevertheless, a coalition of civil rights and civic organizations banded together in early August with a lawsuit claiming Tennessee’s 2022 redistricting plan violates the 14th and 15th amendments of the U.S. Constitution and Black voters’ rights by diluting their voice at the polls.
The lawsuit contends state lawmakers used “cracking” and “packing” methods to gerrymander the former 5th Congressional District that previously took in all of Davidson County and state Senate District 31 in Shelby County where first-term Sen. Brent Taylor replaced indicted (now convicted) former Sen. Brian Kelsey. The challenge says Black voters were preempted there as well.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Legislature split Davidson into three districts, combining the reliably blue county with red counties, watering down the Black vote in Metro Nashville and guaranteeing a Republican victory. Fifth District voters wound up with former lobbyist Andy Ogles as their representative, in addition to Republican Reps. Mark Green and John Rose.
Even Green told the Tennessee Lookout last year the map was “inherently unfair,” probably because he had to work a little harder than usual to win re-election against Democratic candidate Odessa Kelly.
Ogles, who defeated former House Speaker Beth Harwell and retired Brig. Gen. Kurt Winstead in the primary and Democratic state Sen. Heidi Campbell in the general, hasn’t complained a bit about the district lines. Plenty of people have been complaining about him, though, especially his efforts to hold the U.S. House hostage this year in an effort to win himself stronger standing.
But back to this lawsuit.
“We are very hopeful that the Tennessee court system will do the right thing and recognize that racial gerrymandering happened here in Tennessee significantly where it diluted the power of particularly African-Americans and people of color’s power to vote for the candidate of our choice or lessen opportunities of people of color to run for any of those offices,” says former state Sen. Brenda Gilmore, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Democratic state Sen. Charlane Oliver, who won election after Gilmore stepped away, points out the court ruling affirms that the federal Voting Rights Act is “the clear law of the land.” She contends Republicans in Southern states are trying to “illegally skirt the law” and diminish the power of Black voters, which is why the Equity Alliance she founded and other groups filed their lawsuit.
League of Women Voters of Tennessee President Debby Gould isn’t counting chickens before they hatch but says, “Any time that we see the courts are taking a serious look at redistricting issues, it bodes well that it’s gaining attention and we’ll be interested to see what happens next with the Alabama case.”
Republicans have contended from the outset that the redistricting plan meets requirements set out in the Voting Rights Act for “one man one vote.”
Keeping Kelsey down
Federal prosecutors say convicted former Sen. Brian Kelsey’s request for bail should be denied because it’s another “delay” tactic that isn’t likely to reverse his conviction or prison sentence.
Kelsey is asking to avoid reporting to prison for a 21-month sentence in October while he pursues an appeal. The former Senate Judiciary chairman pleaded guilty in 2022 to two counts of directing money from his state campaign account through two PACs to the American Conservative Union, which bought ads for his failed 2016 congressional bid. It’s illegal to use state campaign money for a federal race because the money is governed by different rules.
Represented by a third set of attorneys, the former Germantown Republican argued in a recent filing the federal government violated his plea agreement by asking for a harsher sentence. Prosecutors made the move after Kelsey reneged on his guilty plea, even though U.S. District Court Judge Waverly Crenshaw rejected his request.
Prosecutors say Kelsey’s “belated claim” is likely to “fail all prongs” of the plain-error test, in which he would have to show they made an obvious error and one that would materially prejudice his rights.
Furthermore, they say the record shows Kelsey “breached multiple terms” of the plea agreement before sentencing and forfeited any right to enforce it. In addition, prosecutors say in their filing that even if Kelsey could show they breached the plea agreement, he would only receive a new sentencing before a different judge, “not cancellation” of the convictions.
The prosecutors’ filing points out Kelsey, on the eve of sentencing in March, “repeatedly asserted that he had knowingly and intentionally lied under oath” at the change of plea hearing when he told the court he was guilty of two counts.
Kelsey also testified repeatedly he didn’t commit the crimes despite making oral and written statements that he directed the campaign scheme.
During the hearing, he said, “I’m here to tell you today, Your Honor, I did not tell these people to make these donations.” And later, he declared, “I 100 percent did not commit these things I’m accused of.”
Thus, the federal Probation Office recommended a sentence of 27 to 33 months and federal prosecutors ultimately sought up to 41 months.
At his August sentencing hearing, Kelsey admitted he is a “convicted felon” and later told the judge he is “simple and selfish.”
Judge Crenshaw, who was not persuaded by Kelsey’s effort to take back the guilty plea, was kind enough to set his sentence at 21 months after hearing people gush over his goodness.
One has to wonder, though, when the judge’s patience will run out. It’s already thin.
Deer Abby, Deer Abby
According to a new lawsuit, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency went after one of its own when an agent was interrogated and fired over complaints that the agency misrepresented the number and location of deer with chronic wasting disease.
James Kelly, a wildlife biologist who filed the lawsuit, contends the disease is found in only two counties while the agency reports it in 16 counties, in addition to exaggerating the number of infected deer.
Clearly, the disease hasn’t made its way to Hendersonville in Sumner County where the deer herd is so strong they run around like packs of dogs, eating flowers and vegetables and causing wrecks. The main difference is people can be penalized for leaving their dogs unleashed, but there’s no such thing as a leash law for deer.
Maybe the city should start handing out citations for feeding deer, which is a major no-no. Police, of course, have more to do than go on deer patrol. Which leaves it to our beloved TWRA.
If the agency has nothing better to do than interrogate its own people, agents could at least start trapping deer in Hendersonville and moving them somewhere else with less traffic.
Signed, Highly Irritated.
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